WASHINGTON — Attorney General Merrick B. Garland appointed a special counsel on Friday to take over two major criminal investigations involving former President Donald J. Trump, including his role in events leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and his handling of sensitive government documents.
John L. Smith, the former head of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, will oversee the investigation into Mr. Trump’s retention of sensitive government documents at his home in Florida, and “key” aspects of the separate inquiry into the former president’s actions before the Jan. 6 attack, Mr. Garland said in a news conference.
The announcement came after Mr. Trump said on Tuesday that he planned to run for president again, a decision some have claimed was made to make it more difficult for prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against him.
The appointment of a special counsel was a way for the Justice Department to insulate its investigations against Mr. Trump from political considerations. While special counsels can be fired from their positions, the process is much more arduous than removing ordinary prosecutors from a case.
Special counsels are semi-independent prosecutors who by Justice Department regulations can be appointed for high-level investigations when there can be a conflict of interest or the appearance of it. They exercise greater day-to-day autonomy than regular United States attorneys but are ultimately still subject to the control of the attorney general.
For Mr. Trump, it will be a return to a familiar dynamic. While in office, he faced a special counsel investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III, who scrutinized the nature of various links between his 2016 campaign and Russia.
Already, Mr. Trump’s supporters have accused the Justice Department under the Biden administration of investigating Mr. Trump for political reasons, and some Republicans have floated the idea of impeaching Mr. Garland if he pursues charges against him. That tension is almost certain to become more pronounced now that Mr. Trump has formally announced his third bid for the presidency.
The department has “a true conflict of interest, real or perceived,” said Claire Finkelstein, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law. She added, “It would be difficult to put measures in place that would reassure people that the Justice Department was acting with independence on the Trump investigation.”
The political swirl around the investigations of Mr. Trump intensified this week when the Republicans won control of the House.
Katie Benner contributed reporting.
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